In their beds and wheelchairs, the young Salvadoran soldiers craned to watch as David Evans, a Vietnam veteran amputee, first walked quickly down the ward and then actually ran a few steps. He didn't even limp.
When he took off one of his two prostheses and passed it around, murmurs of excitement suddenly replaced what had been the wounded soldiers' listless courtesy for another group of touring Yankees.
The rising toll of soldiers with their legs blown off is the latest development in El Salvador's five years of civil war. Col. Rodolfo Giron, an orthopedic surgeon who is director of El Salvador's military hospital and in charge of the health of the Army, told a group of visiting Vietnam veterans this weekend that the hospital does 15 to 20 amputations each month. He said 70 percent of his soldier patients had wounds suffered in mine explosions.
El Salvador's leftist guerrilla coalition, in retaliation for what its leaders say is the Army's persistent bombing and forced evacuation of civilians in the countryside, is strewing the earth with land mines.
"We can't fight them in the air, so we will fight them on the ground," said Cristobal, a guerrilla whom Evans and the other veterans encountered the next day in the deserted town of Tenancingo.
The result of these policy decisions for the soldiers is the amputees' ward of the military hospital, and for the peasants it is the refugee camps outside the capital. The group of 14 Vietnam veterans and observers, assembled by the Washington-based, nonprofit educational organization Americans for Peace in the Americas, visited both sites as part of a 10-day tour of Central America.
Evans, a veterans' organizer from Elk View, W.Va., is a prosthetics specialist with state-of-the-art equipment that the Salvadoran soldiers are unlikely ever to see again. Still, a hospital official told the soldiers that, like Evans, they could expect to be up and walking in six months from the day they were wounded if they worked hard in the physical therapy classes.
"It looks very familiar here," said Dennis Koehler, an attorney and veterans' organizer from Palm Beach, Fla., who was in Vietnam in 1961. He and several other vets, most of whom oppose U.S. policy in Central America, said the U.S. and Salvadoran governments were raising false hopes not only for the soldiers' physical improvement but also for an early end to the fighting, as the U.S. and Vietnamese governments had done a dozen years ago.
Jose Guzman Romero, 22, was one of the amputees watching Evans from a wheelchair. He said he was leading his patrol after some retreating guerrillas near the eastern town of San Miguel on Aug. 6 when a mine exploded under him. The stump of his left thigh was wrapped in bandages.
"I am working hard to get strong again," he said. A former laborer, he said he expects the Army to give him a job -- "something not too strenuous" -- after he learns to walk again.
"The war will be over soon," he said.